Hard Lessons from Ben Franklin’s Failure

Chances are, you already know about Ben Franklin: inventor, diplomat, postmaster, bespectacled genius. But Ben Franklin, failure?

It’s true. The Founding Father struck out at one of the goals he set for himself – to become a champion chess player. Why he failed in this endeavor, but attained such greatness in others, is instructive for the achievements or disappointments of our students, and even ourselves.

Consider Franklin’s efforts to become a better writer. Early on, he stumbled across copies of the British magazine, The Spectator. Impressed by the quality of the stories inside, he became acutely aware of his own literary weaknesses. But he hatched a brilliant plan to improve himself. Sometimes, he’d translate magazine stories into verse, then back into prose and compare against the original. Other times, he’d take notes on a story, mix up his scribblings and put them away, then come back later and try to rewrite the story based on his jumbled notes. These painstaking, intentional efforts ultimately paid off. Franklin became a best-selling author, and even today is regarded as a masterful writer.

Why didn’t the same lessons apply to Franklin’s attempt to become a great chess player? Certainly, there’s every indication that he played a lot of chess and that he really wanted to improve. But there’s the rub: the so-called “ten-thousand hour rule” suggests that a great deal of practice, coupled with the motivation to complete it, should result in greatness. Yet, we know this isn’t true. Investing countless hours and harboring a genuine desire to achieve aren’t enough, even though many of our students fall into that very trap.

Franklin’s chess-playing tribulations are just one example from Anders Ericsson’s excellent book, Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise. A cognitive psychologist at Florida State University, Ericsson is arguably the world’s leading expert on expertise. Analyzing Franklin’s case, Ericsson determines that the type of chess practice Franklin partook in was insufficient. How do players get great at the game? Certainly, they play a lot of chess. But more importantly, they devote abundant time and much effort to studying the games of chess masters, thereby getting the latter players’ moves into long-term memory so they can be utilized during matches. Franklin’s barrier was not one of diligence and desire, but of water: he simply didn’t have consistent access to the games of European chess champions who dominated in the eighteenth century, and was thus prevented from studying their moves and strategies.

The kind of practice Franklin required, according to Ericsson, is called “deliberate practice.” Standard practice consists of doing the same thing over and over again, believing that such repetition breeds improvement. That notion is true, but only up to a certain point – and the gains taper off pretty quickly. Deliberate practice, on the other hand, works toward targeted goals, and probably requires the guidance of another expert. With experience, practitioners develop what Ericsson calls “mental representations” – what we’d probably call “metacognition” – of a skill or task, and they can self-monitor and self-correct.

So, what might deliberate practice look like in the field of history education?

To my knowledge, no one has written on this explicitly, but the “decoding” protocol of historian David Pace probably comes closest. In authentic history learning environments, students will necessarily be confronted with ambiguity and the unfamiliar. They thus hit so-called “learning bottlenecks” (Pace’s terminology) through which they must work to achieve more genuine understandings of the past. My earlier column about expert vs. non-expert reading approaches is just one example of a bottleneck, but there are myriad others. Pace’s protocol calls on us to decode and model the processes we use to work through such difficulties, with the intention of having students mimic and internalize these efforts.

After all, students often see only final, polished representations of the past. Hidden to them are all the false starts, dead ends and revisions that necessarily occurred in order to produce an article, textbook or presentation. Thomas Kuhn, the renowned scientist, historian and philosopher, summed this up well, observing that “in history, more than any other discipline I know, the finished product of research disguises the nature of the work that produced it.”

A final distinguishing feature of deliberate practice is that it’s hard. For athletes, it may call for long hours of targeted drills, punctuated by bouts of pushing themselves into zones of excruciating pain. For musicians, deliberate practice might entail mind-numbing repetition sprinkled with sessions taking performers to the edge of their abilities. But in all cases – and Ericsson’s decades of research have made this abundantly clear – the “near maximal effort” of deliberate practice is not enjoyable. As he tells it, “If your mind is wandering and you’re relaxed and just having fun, you probably won’t improve.”

This isn’t to deprecate all forms of enjoyment and fun in the history classroom. After all, even experts can’t maintain near maximal exertions for very long. The problem is when efforts simply to engage students overtake the demanding requirements of deliberate practice. Sam Wineburg calls “historical thinking” an “unnatural act,” bound to cause confusion and to call on efforts that students wouldn’t otherwise put forth. Getting them to see the differences between various types of sources, to gauge a document’s reliability as a function of authorship and intent, to read for implicit information, to cross-check against other sources, to imagine situations far removed from their own without reflexively judging, to weigh conflicting evidence-based arguments, to express thoughts logically and clearly – these are inherently difficult tasks for students, and they require incremental but challenging protocols for improvement.

One of my recent decoding efforts focuses on writing better introductory paragraphs in analysis essays, a project that necessitated literature review and self-analysis, but which breaks down the writing process into something more intentional and manageable. Another project trains learners in quantitative methods for evaluating historical evidence, with the goal being to weigh that evidence more fully and systematically. These protocols aren’t easy for students: they need many attempts (and failures along the way), and I have to provide them with feedback before they’re able to self-monitor. Just as important, it’s not simply a case of having students write or analyze more. Those things alone won’t result in much improvement.

Everything we know about Ben Franklin suggests he had the traits to become the chess player he envisioned. He was intelligent, resourceful, hard-working and goal-oriented. But even those qualities weren’t enough. Lacking access to the game observations he required ensured that he’d hit an improvement bottleneck without a means to push through it. What Franklin really needed to invent was YouTube. That way, he could’ve watched all the champion chess playing he wanted.

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